Sometimes, if a dispute becomes intractable, even a stubborn captain must dispense with reason and consider compromise. On our boat this became necessary after my two older sons developed a potentially mutinous desire.
They wanted to chase sharks.
This yearning, natural for boys of their age and often for boys several decades older, faced deep-rooted facts. I am an inshore fisherman, a meat gatherer by practice and preference. Which means that I resist changing habits or haunts, unless changes might yield more squid, scup, bass, or fluke.
But the position of the boys—Jack, who was 14, and Mick, 12—had remained unwavering for years. They wanted to chase sharks.
We were stuck in circular discussions. I would tell them that shark fishing is not readily done on the rock piles near Rhode Island’s coast, where we pass weekends and nights filling coolers with fish of a more ordinary lineage and size. I would tell them that the most common sharks in our region set up farther out, at the Mud Hole, a long depression in the ocean floor about 20 miles southeast of Point Judith’s Harbor of Refuge, where we have a slip. We’d have to drive past a lot of good fishing to get out there, I’d say, and this would be akin to leaving a good restaurant to search for a meal.
The boys always offered the same reply.
When can we go sharking?
I’d rely on: You’re too small. We’ll get to the sharks soon.
This approach sufficed for many years, but was not ironclad, given that children grow.
So there came a day last summer, about the time that Jack was fitting into my oilskin pants (but after we had filled the freezer with bags of cleaned squid and vacuum-sealed fish fillets) that our argument abruptly ended.
There was no more denying it. The boys were big enough to handle stand-up tackle for the sharks they were most likely to meet—blues, small makos, and threshers.
It was time to let them have their way.
The expedition began in our marina’s tackle shop. We purchased stand-up rods (to match offshore reels I had bought at a deep discount years before, anticipating this day), a harness, a stout gaff, and safety lines, and then talked through the basics of rigging heavy steel leaders to circle hooks.
Once equipped, we secured the necessary federal permit for harvesting tuna and sharks. Then we set to work—gathering bluefish for bait. With a few passes of umbrella rigs through a local rip we had iced all the three- to nine-pound bluefish we could want.
Next came chum-making, simple and spirited. The boys had recently helped me slaughter a batch of chickens that we had raised out back. With a manual meat grinder we combined bird blood and entrails with fish frames and bluefish chunks, making a dark mash that was all our own.
We did not pretend this was a secret recipe, something to be bottled and sold. We understood that we knew little enough of the feeding patterns of the Mud Hole’s sharks to say anything solid about fine-tuning a chum slick.
But bluefish, we could presume, would be eminently useful, as schools of bluefish darted through the Mud Hole, too. Their oily flesh could provide the foundation of a greasy mix.
Whether bluefish stirred with the guts, blood, and stray feathers of our chickens, spiked with the ground porgy and seabass frames, would be better than the bunker chum available at the marina was not important. The boy’s driveway brew need not be special sauce. It need only be theirs.
Jack worked the hand-crank on the grinder, while Mick fed it from the coolers. The gear turned. The bones crunched as they gave way. The buckets slowly filled, as did a sense of self-reliance—and a persistent cloud of yellow jackets, each of which hovered and buzzed until succumbing to swats that sent some of them into the chum buckets, too.
“This is really good chum,” Jack kept saying, his optimism rising as his forearms became caked with drying fishmeal and blood.
Tackle. Permit. Bait. Chum. We were almost complete.
All we needed was the right weather, which came soon enough with a summer classic: a forecast for a hot day with light seas and a southwest breeze.
Out at the edge of the Mud Hole, a quick test drift showed that our 26-foot Jones Brothers center console would travel northeast. We set up at the southwest corner and dangled a perforated bucket of frozen chum off a cleat.
The boys began ladling their home brew as I slipped bluefish fillets onto hooks, suspended them beneath grapefruit-sized
balloons and 10-ounce sinkers and let them drift behind us in the slick.
“How long do you think it takes before they show up?”
“No idea,” I said. “Maybe they don’t show up.”
Something happened almost at once.
The deepest line, about 120 feet down in 140 feet of water, began to move. The balloon bounced along the surface. A fish was toying with the bait.
The reel clicked, but slowly.
I was suspicious; this did not seem right. I reeled in, felt weight, and applied pressure so the circle hook might bite.
The fish pulled back, but softly. I pulled and the rod barely bent. Was it coming with us? As I cranked the reel, a small twisting flash beneath the boat told the story. We had hooked a dogfish, about 40 inches long. About a dozen more followed it up, curiously swimming a lazy spiral under the hooked fish.
We reset the baits and fished on. Two more dogs quickly followed. The boys were discouraged.
“That was a lot of work making chum to catch dogfish,” Jack said.
He was right.
The boat entered the Mud Hole proper. The bottom fell farther away, to 180 and then 190 feet.
An hour passed. Then another. The wind freshened, causing the drift to pick up speed.
A reel started to click, then instantly became a long, rolling whir.
Mick lifted the rod from the holder.
“Hold on,” Jack said, and clipped him in with a safety line.
This fish swam confidently, fast and straight. This was no dogfish. Mick pointed the rod level as Jack and I reeled in the other two rods, clearing the boat and the water around it.
When the first run tapered off, Mick lifted the rod tip, put the reel into gear and began to retrieve. The fish yanked the tip back down and ran. It was hooked. Line peeled off as it moved toward the stern.
“It feels heavy,” Mick said.
It rushed past the boat and then turned behind the engines, revealing itself in clear water about 20 feet down. Its sharp nose, royal-blue flank, and large black eye were distinctive: It was a mako, not quite six feet long. Not a huge fish, but easily a pound-for-pound match for a 12-year-old boy.
With two kicks of the tail it was out of sight.
After a few minutes, Mick had it near the starboard gunwale. True to a mako’s reputation, this one jumped, landed hard, and tried to dive.
Now it was tired. With gloves on, I reached for the wire, pulled the fish in close and sunk a gaff in it as it tangled itself in the line.
A few minutes later, the shark was on ice. Mick was aglow.
“That was awesome,” he said.
Then he was serious, looking me in the eyes. “Thank you for taking us out sharking.”
“Jack,” he added, and handed off the harness. “Next one is yours.”
Me? I was rethinking old positions. A cooler full of mako steaks would do, and that look from Mick was worth any amount of work.
We reset the rods. The slick was thick. About 45 minutes later another balloon disappeared beneath the water.
Now was Jack’s turn. This fish also bolted for the stern and showed itself: a blue shark about seven feet long.
After several minutes, Jack had the fish boatside. I reached down with wire cutters, near the hook, and cut the shark free. It glided away, gone.
We packed up and pointed the bow toward the harbor. The boys stood as we rode the swell.
These had not been the sharks of legend. They were something much better. They were sharks that would enrich two boys’ memories for the rest of their lives, and be welcome in mine, too.